Gluten sensitivity has become a popular topic in recent years, and by now someone you know has likely gone gluten-free.
A majority of people can tolerate eating gluten. However, those with Celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (sometimes referred to as “gluten sensitivity” or “gluten intolerance”) suffer a variety of symptoms after consuming gluten.
But what is gluten and is it possible that you’re sensitive to the effects of it without knowing?
Gluten is a sticky protein that most people associate with wheat, but is also found in other foods such as barley and rye. It’s composed of two main proteins: glutenin and gliadin. Knowing where gluten is found in food is the first step to understanding whether gluten is possibly affecting your gut health in a negative way.
Which Foods Contain Gluten?
Gluten is found in a wide variety of food items, including whole grains as well as processed foods, including:
● Whole grain products: whole wheat, wheat bran, barley, rye, couscous, farro, wheat germ, and cracked wheat
● Refined grain products: crackers, bread, cookies, pastries, pasta, and many meatless vegetarian and vegan processed foods
● Some alcohol products: some types of beer and wine (distilled alcohols, even when made from barley, wheat, or rye are considered gluten-free)
● Soy sauce
● Certain salads dressings, sauces, and gravies
● Flavored potato chips
● Some spice blends
Gluten is what gives dough its elasticity and makes bread and pasta stick together. Because gluten forms a unique elastic network, it is able to trap gas in, which allows for the leavening effect and moisture in breads, pasta and other products. For this reason, gluten is frequently used as an additive to a variety of processed foods for improving the texture and moisture retention of those foods. Gluten is what helps make bread “chewy.”
Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity
When it comes to gluten, there is a huge spectrum of reactions to the protein based on your individual health and genetics.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction provoked by gluten. When gluten enters the intestinal tract, an inflammatory response occurs and stimulates immune cells. This happens to everybody, but for those with Celiac disease, the immune system is unable to stop at the attack of one component of gluten, gliadin, and your own body cells begin to attack the lining of the gut wall (1). The health of the gut is then left to not only combat against gluten in the diet but also the immune system. Your body is at war with itself.
It is also possible to experience non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) outside of having diagnosed Celiac disease. NCGS is a reaction to gluten that is not categorized as an allergic reaction, but does create a reaction in the body that leads to inflammation in the digestive tract.
In the United States, 1% of the population has Celiac Disease (2), but over 83 percent of them remain undiagnosed living with symptoms. Between 30-40% of the population has the genetic makeup to support being celiac, while only 1-3% of them present as celiac. For those with Celiac Disease, a gluten-free diet is the only known treatment for relief from symptoms and autoimmune health.
Many symptoms of NCGS and Celiac Disease include:
● Digestive upset
● Abdominal pain
● Brain fog
● Skin issues
● Excessively foul smelling gas or stools
● Iron deficiency due to malabsorption
The Consequences of Gluten
When gluten enters the gut, in both those with Celiac or a gluten sensitivity, an immune response is triggered leading to an inflammatory response. When the gut lining becomes inflamed, normal mechanisms of cells in the gut lining are compromised. The walls of the intestines are lined with villi that resemble finger-link projections. Normally the junctions between these villi are very tight, creating an environment that is selective about which nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. When inflammation occurs, however, the junctions between the villi begin to loose, creating a problem called intestinal permeability. This means that not only do food particles directly enter the bloodstream without being regulated, but the toxins, bacteria, viruses, and other molecules we aren’t intended to digest are able to enter the bloodstream free of being screened. This is referred to as leaky gut syndrome.
As food and other molecules enter the bloodstream unregulated, inflammation becomes a widespread issue in the body as it works to remove these things from circulation.
On a larger scale, non-celiac gluten sensitivity has been shown to contribute to gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in gut flora. The human intestinal tract contains 10 trillion bacterial cells that live in your gut (gut flora), which help you digest food. When an imbalance occurs between different types of microorganisms in the gut, symptoms such as upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating can occur.
Moreover, those suffering from celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity may also suffer from brain fog and anxiety/depression, as your gut also plays a vital role in your mental health. It’s estimated that gut bacteria produce 90 percent of the serotonin in our body (3), which is an important neurotransmitter for mental health and happiness. When the levels of beneficial bacteria are overshadowed by levels of harmful bacteria, dysbiosis takes over, and mental health can suffer.
Gut flora also synthesizes important vitamins including thiamine, folate, biotin, riboflavin, panthothenic acid and vitamin K. An imbalance in gut flora triggered from celiac or NCGS can contribute to nutritional deficiencies.
In addition, when the gut becomes inflamed, it is unable to function properly for nutrient absorption, which is one of the key purposes of the intestines. This can lead to nutrient and vitamin deficiencies regardless of a healthy diet. It’s important to remember this is true for anyone with a gluten sensitivity and is not exclusive to those who have Celiac Disease.
How to Determine if You Have Celiac Disease or NCGS
Diagnosis of Celiac disease often involves blood testing and a biopsy of the small intestines. However, if you think you are being affected by either Celiac Disease or a non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, one of the easiest things to do at home is completely eliminate gluten from your diet and see if symptoms are reduced. It can take months for gluten to be completely eliminated from the body, but three weeks is typically a valuable range of time for a trial elimination before reintroducing gluten in small levels to see if any reaction occurs.
Are you looking for custom-made meal plans that will make your life easier while avoiding gluten?
1. Schuppan D, Zevallos V. Wheat amylase trypsin inhibitors as nutritional activators of innate immunity. Dig Dis. 2015;33(2):260-263. doi:10.1159/000371476